Want to Knock 'em Dead in Nashville? Learn These 20 Tasty Country Licks
Exploring the world of country guitar is a diverse and exciting journey, one from which a guitarist of any background can benefit, while having fun.
Modern country guitar is an amalgam of traditional and not-so-traditional playing approaches borrowed from several related homegrown American styles. As such, it includes elements of blues, bluegrass, rock and roll, and even jazz, and it offers a tasty mix of expressive and challenging playing techniques.
The key musical building blocks that form country guitar’s foundational vocabulary are the major and minor pentatonic scales, the major scale and the Mixolydian mode, major and minor chords and their corresponding arpeggios, dominant sevenths and ninths, and the judicious use of chromatic passing tones.
Mainstay country guitar-playing techniques include flatpicking, fingerpicking and hybrid picking (pick-and-fingers technique); the exploitation of open strings and licks played in the “open position,” which have a characteristic “twangy” tone; and lots of string bends and finger slides.
The go-to ax for most country pickers is a solidbody electric guitar, particularly a Telecaster-style design, equipped with single-coil pickups and fairly light-gauge strings (.009s or .010s). More-traditional country guitarists, such as the legendary Chet Atkins, came of age playing a semi-hollowbody guitar equipped with humbuckers, and country-rock players, like the Kentucky Headhunters’ Greg Martin, prefer Gibson-style, humbucker-equipped solidbodies.
Classic American-style tube amps, such as vintage Fenders, are the rig of choice for many country guitarists. Most players eschew the use of high-tech, high-gain amps or psychedelic effects and opt instead for a more “honest”-sounding bright-clean and/or “organically” overdriven tone with some spring reverb and compression.
Interestingly, country guitarists tend to approach soloing in a way similar to jazz musicians, often crafting licks that either melodically describe the underlying chord changes via arpeggio-based ideas or emphasize chord tones. (By comparison, the rock-oriented approach to soloing involves finding a scale or mode that “agrees with” a chord and playing licks and patterns based on that scale.)
Country guitarists will often strive to emulate the signature licks of fiddle, banjo or pedal-steel players, cleverly borrowing a variety of techniques and musical approaches from these instruments and adapting them to the guitar. As is the case with any style, the best way to get a grasp of country guitar is to listen to its most celebrated pickers past and present and learn some of their signature licks and playing approaches. Check out old-school country guitarists such as Atkins, Merle Travis, Hank Garland and Jerry Reed, acoustic bluegrass flatpickers like Clarence White, Doc Watson and Tony Rice, and modern electric country players such as Albert Lee, Brent Mason, Brad Paisley, Johnny Hiland, Keith Urban, Jerry Donanue and Vince Gill, to name a few.
In this lesson, Guitar World presents 20 country licks designed to teach you how to play authentic country guitar. Each lick incorporates techniques and stylistic elements that are characteristic of either a specific artist or a subgenre of the greater country guitar style.
FIGURE 1, based on the A Mixolydian mode (A B C# D E F# G), with the minor third, C, added for a bluesy twist, is played in second position and utilizes lots of double and single pull-offs to open strings, which create an instant country-twang vibe. You’ll want a good, strong attack on the picked notes, as this will give you plenty of momentum to make the pull-offs and hammer-ons as loud and clear as possible. When pulling off, be sure to pull the string in toward the palm as you release it.
The bend toward the end of the lick can be tricky to perform. Because it’s on the A string, you’ll want to bend the string downward, pulling it in toward your palm, as opposed to pushing it away from the palm. (This is a good general rule of thumb when bending on the bottom two strings.) Make sure you’re bending the B note up a half step, to C, as indicated. You can check your pitch by comparing it to that of the unbent C note at the third fret. Use this lick as an ending to a solo or song.
Performed with hybrid picking, FIGURE 2 cascades down the C major pentatonic scale (C D E G A) in four-note groups, with pull-offs used at every opportunity. The right hand alternates between plucked upstrokes with the middle finger and downstrokes with the pick. When plucking, really snap the string so that it smacks against the fretboard, producing a sharp accent, which will create that signature country guitar “spank.”
This bluesy lick sounds great over an E or E7 chord. It incorporates double-stops (two notes played together), hybrid picking and the use of the b3 from the minor pentatonic scale, in this case, the note G in E minor pentatonic (E G A B D). Another way to reckon the b3 is as the #9, which is a very bluesy/jazzy-sounding altered-tension tone.
Begin this lick on the upbeat of beat one, plucking the G and B strings together with your pick hand’s middle and ring fingers. Barre your fret-hand ring finger across these strings at the 14th fret and pull it off to an index-finger barre at the 12th fret. Alternatively, you could fret the 14th-fret notes with the tips of your ring finger and pinkie. At the end of bar 2, bend the G string at the 12th fret up a quarter step by pulling the index-finger barre slightly downward, in toward the palm.
This lick is commonly found in what could be referred to as a modern “country cha-cha” groove. Try to make all the notes in the first bar very staccato (short and detached) by releasing your fret-hand grip on each note immediately after you play it. The easiest way to perform the picking in this bar is to attack the D string with the pick and the G string with the middle finger.
To sound the double-stops in bar 2, pluck the B-string notes with your middle finger while simultaneously picking the G string with the pick. You can alternatively pluck the two strings with your middle and ring fingers. The challenging part is at the end, where you’ll want to keep the fifth-fret E note on the B string ringing while bending and releasing the C# note on the G string’s fifth fret. Try to get a good pick-hand attack on the bend, as this will give the notes momentum to clearly ring through the release.
This is a common bluegrass-style run in the key of G, played in first position and flat-picked throughout, with the brief exception of a grace-note finger slide in bar 2. The second note, Db is the flat five of the key, which is known as a “blue note.” Notice how the B and the Bb notes (the major and minor third, respectively) ring together in bar 1, producing a fleeting dissonance. This combined ringing of picked notes—called a floatie by bluegrass players—is a clever move that emulates the ringing licks that banjo and fiddle players like to play. The slide in bar 2 is best performed with the middle finger.
This flat-picked single-note lick outlines a C chord on the lower strings in first position. The line’s dancing contour and use of open strings, hammer-ons and pull-offs give it a nice rolling, swinging feel. The b3, Eb, is added in a couple of places for a bluesy feel, and the move from F to Eb to E on beat three of bar 1 (4-b3-3) is a classic “hillbilly blues” move. Bar 2 jumps over to the G string with a bluesy tumble back down to the C root note.
This banjo-style lick is played with hybrid picking to better emulate the rolling sound of that instrument and facilitate the nearly continuous string crossing. The key here is to allow as many notes as possible to ring together, so be careful to not inadvertently mute the open G string with the sides of your fretting fingers. You may find it helpful to practice the lick in four-note segments, then put them all together.
Incorporating open strings into ascending or descending scales to create a harp-like effect is a common country guitar “trick.” This lick is designed so that, wherever possible, an open note replaces a fretted note. To get that harplike effect, try to keep as many notes ringing together as you can, at the same volume. Notice how the pattern moves across the strings in three-note “waves.” There are a couple of wide stretches involved, so make sure your fret hand is limbered up before attempting the lick, and ease into the stretches, angling your wrist as you see fit to optimize your reach.
This lick draws upon common elements of jazz guitar single-note phrasing, such as a swing rhythm, alternate picking and use of chromatic “neighbor tones.” The b3 (Bb) and b7 (F) are used as passing tones over a G7 chord to create a bluesy feel. The position shifts in the middle of the lick might take a bit practice, but they provide the most practical fingering scheme.
This lick is a repeating phrase that uses hammer-ons, repeated notes and palm muting to create a percussive sound. The initial four-note pattern repeats three times in bar 1, followed by a quick pull-down bend at the third fret, best performed with the middle finger supported by the index. Bar 2 switches from hammer-ons to double pull-offs, resolving on an open D5 power chord. Use alternate picking for the palm-muted notes, and make sure your hammer-ons and pull-offs are strong and clear.
This sweet, pedal steel–like lick is built around sixth intervals played on nonadjacent strings and features lots of slippery-sounding ascending and descending finger slides. Notice the half-step approaches going into the A and E chords. The challenge here is to get all the notes to ring as close to the same volume as possible. You’re looking for a seamless transition from chord to chord, so practice it slowly at first and strive for a smooth flow of notes.
This bouncy single-note line [FIGURE 12] dances around chord tones with “upper and lower neighbors” and is perfect as a fill or for ending a tune. Take note of the position shifts involved, especially in bar 2. Use whichever fingering feels right and doesn’t tie your fingers in knots.
FIGURE 13 is a first-position bluegrass lick that sounds equally good on acoustic or electric guitar. Flat-pick all the notes that are not hammered-on or pulled-off, and strive for a seemless flow of notes. If you’re having trouble connecting the whole phrase, try practicing bars 1 and 2 separately, and then put them together.
Demonstrating an approach often used by many of today’s most skilled country guitarists, this lick emulates the celebrated “weeping” sound of a pedal steel, with lots of oblique bends (a technique in which one note is bent while another, unbent note is sounded on another string). Use your pinkie to bend the B string in bar 1, supported by the ring finger, and use your ring and middle fingers for the G-string bends. The final bend is a tricky half-step bend with the middle finger. You’ll want the notes on the D and G strings to continue ringing while you bend the A string upward with the middle finger.
An essential technique for country lead guitar, chicken pickin’ is an application of aggressive hybrid picking and left- and right-hand muting techniques that creates a hen-like clucking sound. Begin this lick by fretting the G string’s seventh-fret D note with your ring finger, then pick the string and bend it up a whole step with the assistance of the middle finger.
Hold the bend and pluck the same note with the ring finger of your pick hand while muting the string with your fret hand. This should produce a pitchless snapping sound (indicated in the notation by an X) as the muted string ricochets off the fretboard. The second half of the lick consists of a roll across the top three strings with a held bend on the G string. Let all the notes ring together here until you pick the final note, the A root.
This traditional Western-swing pedal steel–like chord phrase features a series of shifting triads with chromatic approaches from a half step below. A good way to practice this lick is to first learn each chord shape and then add the slides. Pick each three-string group with the pick and your middle and ring fingers to achieve a simultaneous note attack. It’s important that the slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs ring clearly. The C13 shape at the beginning of the final bar requires a bit of a stretch. You might find this chord shape easier to finger with your thumb rotated further down the neck to give you a little more reach.
This country-rock lick incorporates a mix of double-stops and bends similar to what Keith Urban uses in a lot of his solos. Play the opening bends with your ring finger, supported by the middle. There is a quick position shift on beat three of bar 1, at which point you barre your index finger across the top two strings at the 10th fret.
This part of the lick has a very percussive, yet flowing, fiddle-like vibe, with oblique hammer-ons and pull-offs on the high E string sounded together with alternate-picked 16th notes on the B string. End the lick in the same place it began, in seventh position, with a bend-release on the G string’s ninth fret followed by the D root note at the seventh fret.
This lick is a hybrid-picked, “reverse-roll” pattern with pull-offs that moves down the neck chromatically across two chords. A good way to practice it is by playing one beat, or four 16th notes, at a time. Your index finger will barre across the top two strings in each position. Even though the lick is played over the chords G and D, there is a different implied dominant-seven chord substitution in each eight-note sequence (G7 C7 F7 Bb7) that will add color to any solo.
Inspired by Nashville “hired-gun” studio legend Brent Mason, this slick, challenging lick combines the use of hybrid picking, double-stops, hammer-ons, open strings and single and double pull-offs. Played over an A chord, bar 1 is built around the fifth-position A blues scale “box” pattern. Bar 2 has you moving down to second position with some open-string usage. Break this lick into pieces and slowly work it up to speed.
This is a flashy lick that combines the third-position G minor pentatonic box pattern with open strings that serve to double notes played at the fifth fret, creating a slinky feel and unusual melodic pattern with repeating notes. The pick hand pits the middle finger plucking the G string in opposition to picked downstrokes on the D and A strings, creating a lightning-fast wall of notes.
At the end of bar 2, the rhythm speeds up to 16th-note triplets, facilitated by the use of double pull-offs to open strings. The final note is a half-step bend from F# on the D string’s fourth fret up to the G root note, which may be performed by either pushing or pulling the string with the middle finger (supported by the index).